Interview in Passion for business
Interview in Passion for business, a leading women's magazine, February 2011
An iron will saved her from early retirement. Ten years later Viveca Sten is General Counsel and Senior Vice President at Posten Norden, (the Swedish and Danish post). But it is not the businesswoman that most people recognize. In May her fourth book in the successful Sandhamn series will be released, "Tonight You're Dead. And there is more to come.
Some people seem to have the willpower and energy to do anything. When Viveca Sten began her university studies in the early 80s, she chose to go to law school but also do Master of Science at the Stockholm School of Economics - simultaneously. Since then she has worked with companies such as Letsbuyit.com and Scandinavian Airlines, written non-fiction books like "Business Negotiations" and "Outsourcing of IT-services", before she was picked for the position as General Counsel of the Swedish Post. And then there are the crime novels.
– I have certainly studied twice the amount of most people, but I've never had a plan. I never took a conscious decision to work as corporate counsel or to become a business lawyer, I could just as easily have ended up working for a bank or going into management consulting. Things just happened. I've had a lot of drive, but perhaps not always the focus. And the same thing goes for the books. I think it's incredibly exciting, and I decided early on to write at least three books and also to bring synopsis for two sequels to the first meeting with the publishing house. But I wasn't so determined that I actually drew up a plan like: "I'm going to write three books and they will sell this or that much and they should be translated into all these languages... So, I've always had the drive but I haven't always been so certain of where it would take me."
Viveca Sten is 52 years old, married to Lennart (who is an executive with General Electrics). She has three children (19, 16 and 13 years old) and lives in a suburb north of Stockholm. But she hasn't always been completely focused on her career. When she left the Internet industry, before joining the Swedish Post, she decided to take a two-year sabbatical.
– "To spend time with my children. And I find that quite brave in a country where job security is a must. At the time I was 41 and said to myself: "There must be someone out there who is willing to employ me before retirement." There were a lot of raised eyebrows, but it was fantastic. To have some time to breathe. "
A few years earlier Viveca had been forced to take an unwanted leave of absence. When her first son was born she suffered severe back problems and became very ill. She had to undergo emergency surgery for a slipped disc and after that the entire muscular system in her back caved in. The Swedish social insurance agency offered her early retirement for medical reasons.
- "But I decided to get well and that's the biggest challenge I've ever faced in my life: to be 36 years old with a toddler of three, a baby of six months and the threat of early retirement hanging over me. But I recovered and we had a third child. "
How did you do it?
- "It was tough. My husband was also completely exhausted. Everyone was trying to help out, my parents, some women from the community. I was given two alternatives: either a complicated operation with a 70 percent chance of walking again, and mind you, I didn't particularly like the odds. The other option was to enter a very advanced rehabilitation programme where one slowly, three times a day, rebuilds the muscles in the back. By now I have done that programme 5000 - 6000 times. Today, I need only to exercise four or five times a week. But it's for life, I can never stop altogether."
After an ordeal like that it may be less of a challenge to be the sole woman in all the situations that Viveca so often finds herself in.
- I'm the only woman on the executive management team, so of course I stick out. I get attention just because I'm different. But I know my fields of expertise; I can solidly promote my questions and I am constantly in dialogue with my colleagues on the management team. However, this calls for a lot of integrity. It may be more difficult for a young woman to be in this kind of a situation. But as the years go by you learn how to stand your ground and make your voice heard."
How was the crime writer Viveca Sten born?
- I had written several non-fiction titles and knew that I could write. But in the spring of 2005 I started to feel that I wanted to write something else, pure fiction, not least because I was doing an advanced management programme for top female executives, called 'Ruter Dam' and during a session was asked to define some personal goals. I have always had a creative longing in me, I was editor of the school paper, I've written columns and was also the editor-in-chief on the university law journal – I just took a more complicated route via non-fiction. I have spent all my summers on the island of Sandhamn and felt very strongly that I wanted to write something that would take place in the archipelago. Then an image came before my eyes; a corpse that had been washed ashore on the beach, and that's where the idea for my first crime novel was born."
Do you turn into a different person when you sit down and write after work?
- I'm the same person but I have a different role from the one I have at work. The first thing I do when I get home is to shed my suit and put on a pair of jeans. It's symbolical. I try to keep the roles apart. I have not once thought about fictional characters in a board meeting, my focus is never blurred, but the person Viveca is both the lawyer and the author."
One gets the feeling that you are a very structured person.
- I'm somewhat of a control freak. For better or for worse. My children can fall into hysterics over my preparations when we are going somewhere, and I want to be in total control of everything."
Do you ever take a break?
- It's not what I do best. I can sit on the couch and watch TV with the kids, but that's more like spending time together. Once they've gone to bed, the TV is no more. Between ten and half past eleven it's – wow – my own time! That's when I write. I never dawdle and you may ask yourself: "Don't you need to do nothing sometimes, doesn't the brain need that?" It may be so, but as long as I am enjoying what I do, then I imagine that it's okay. Perhaps I filled my quota of doing nothing during those difficult years when my back was in such bad shape."
How have you and your husband balanced your careers?
- "We have both worked a lot ... So how do we make it work for the children? We pay for household services and when the children were younger we had a lot of help from my parents, who live in Stockholm. But I've always taken long maternity leaves, and I took that two-year sabbatical, and there have also been magic moments when one of us has been between jobs and the other has managed to take some extra parental leave. During such periods we have travelled with the children and rented houses abroad for longer periods of time. Another example is from last summer when I took a ten-week leave of absence. I had been working very hard for a long time and wanted to spend the summer with the children when they were off from school.
With her eldest daughter Camilla, Viveca also has a creative relationship. It is actually Camilla who reads the first version of each book and she plays an integral part in developing the story line.
- "I find it quite intriguing to have a grown-up daughter who is so involved. I'm the type that needs to talk about new ideas; I don't sit at my desk trying to come up with something. There are so many twists and turns that we have created together. We usually go for long walks: "What do you think about this? What if it played out like that? What could make someone act in this way?" The last time we went on holiday we created the entire synopsis for the sixth book in the series. As soon as we got home I sat down and wrote it down, the structure, the plot and the persona of the murderer. If anyone in this family ever is to become a great writer, then it's her."
So you're already at part six?
- I have just finished my fourth novel, but I have written a synopsis for a fifth and a sixth book, which I have sent to my editor. And I have signed a contract for six books in the series. After that we will see... How many can there be? It feels a bit presumptious to answer that question. I take it three at a time. "
In the third part, "I grunden utan skuld" ("Guiltless"), you travel back in time. Is that something that you consciously think about; that you want a different set up for each book?
- "In part, I was curious to see if I could write a parallel story, it's a storytelling method that I had not tried before and it was an interesting challenge. But I was also curious about the historical aspects: there were exciting times before World War I and the Missionary Church movement [in Sweden]. At the beginning I only intended to have short flashbacks, but the historical part grew and finally took up more than a third of the book. I became so involved, so absorbed by the story of Thorwald and how utterly exposed he was. In the end, I spent more time on this part than all the rest. Why did the father turn out that way? How did his legacy live on? Relationships can become so warped, despite all good intentions. But it was so much fun that maybe I will write a historical novel in the future. "
A central part in the Sandhamn series, which may set them favourably apart from the competition, is the relationship between Nora and Henrik. A gender aspect that we are not used to in the Swedish cosy crime genre. Has Thorwald from "I grunden utan skuld" ("Guiltless") been named for the lawyer in "A doll's house", Ibsen's drama about female liberation? Is Henrik his alter ego and Nora the radical heroine of Ibsens's play?
- Those that have read Ibsen would understand why Nora and Henrik have been named accordingly. There is a little hint there. Some novels deal with issues such as bickering over daily routines, who should be picking up the children at the day-care center, but I wanted to address more fundamental issues. What happens when children get older and parents find that they have completely different values. It's quite common that traditional structures take over when the children are young, often because you're so tired, but after ten years you can' help wondering: "How did we end up here? We both went to the university; we started out as equals, under the same conditions..." That's what I wanted to describe, the dilemma in a modern relationship. Why is it, for example, always assumed that the family should move if the husband gets a good job offer, but not the other way around?"
What do you think about when you hear the word "power"?
- It's tempting to say anonymous middle-aged men in dark suits. But power is actually the possibility to influence matters."
You're the sole woman on the management team. Is Posten a conservative workplace?
- At Posten we are actually quite ambitious. All recruitment to higher management positions shall be conducted in an open process and both genders shall be represented among the final three candidates. Women constitute around 30 percent of the female managers. There are historical reasons why there are so few women at the top level. When the Swedish Post merged with Post Danmark two management teams hade to become one. The Danes didn't have any women in any leading positions and in Sweden we were two, but one left. These were special circumstances, but I'm the first to say that we should have more women on the management team. There is room for improvement."
Has your success as an author had an effect on how your colleagues view you?
- I have received very positive response from my colleagues and co-workers and luckily people seem to like the books. I also think that the ability to combine my type of job with something like this conveys a positive image. And I definitely believe that I have become a better leader now that I have something else to think about, something that gives me extra energy. Sometimes you need to think outside of the box. Having said that, there may be less drastic ways of relaxing than plotting for murder in your spare time..."